Dear United Methodist Siblings,
It feels strange for me to write to you, because I am not one of you anymore, but I have come to the conclusion that I will always be connected to you. Through my family, my work, and my history, we will always be linked. I will always find myself talking with someone about your politics, your structures, and your struggles. We are still siblings.
And as you move into this time, you are starting to talk a lot about a deep part of me, my queer identity, part of what made it hard for me to be one of you, part of why I found myself walking away. But I am not writing to tell you to change your policies. I agree that would be fantastic, but more than that, I am writing asking you to not draw battle lines. I remember observing annual conferences and being a part of them, and I liked it until the sexuality battle lines were drawn, because you have been talking about this since before I can remember. One person stands up and asks for inclusion, another stands up and angrily quotes Bible verses, and it gets heated from there. People walk away certain that they were right and stood up for their beliefs and nothing changes. The trenches just get dug a little deeper for the next year when you will have the conversation all over again, and the next year, and the next year.
United Methodist friends, I have felt for a long time like you just keep digging your trenches, drawing your battle lines, firm in your rightness. And I do have a side, I do have a strongly held belief about this too. But I'm convinced that Jesus did not draw battle lines. He got into heated conversations, but he still shared meals with everyone, Pharisee, Samaritan, whomever. He was able to hold his deep beliefs and reach out and share life with those whom he did not agree with. He didn't build trenches. And it's hard when someone else has a battle line and you want to cross it in love. There's a lot of uncertainty in how to do that. But more than anything, that's what I want General Conference to be for you. That's what I pray you experience. And some will walk away with their trenches dug. No matter what happens, your denomination will lose members after this Conference. It's inevitable. But my prayer is for you that if you attend, you are able to find someone you disagree with readily and build a relationship with them. I pray that you may truly relish in the diversity of beliefs and opinions within your denomination, the wide diversity of people and practices. And as you share in the body and blood of our Lord, may the Holy Spirit envelop your gathering and lead you into a new life together. Amen.
Friday, May 6, 2016
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Iowa City on May 1, 2016
Gospel text: John 5:1-9
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?
Take a moment to imagine the turmoil of this man at the pool of Beth-zatha. Everyday this man crawls toward the pool that has the power to heal him, only to be blocked, day after day, week after week, year after year. For 38 years this man crawled toward the pool, only to be pushed aside before he could touch the water that promised new life, living in torment. Every day, he hoped and believed that something would happen, that he would make it. That he would be healed.
Then Jesus enters the scene and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” The man vents to Jesus. Of course he wants to be made well. His whole life has been consumed by this one task. Each day he works his way toward new life, and each day he is thwarted. There appears to be no release, no end to this suffering. But Jesus sets him free. Jesus allows him to move on. No longer condemned to this endless loop of crawling toward this pool, of being pushed aside and having to start all over again, this man is free to start a new life. He can walk away from where he had been and begin life again. His life was transformed by the power of Christ.
Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that this man’s burden, this man’s struggle was being unable to walk. He couldn’t do it before Jesus came on the scene and he could after Jesus talked with him. I think it is a very able bodied way of thinking, one that assumes that there is a correct type of body and an incorrect one. And I’m not convinced that there is a right or wrong type of body, but there are certainly societal expectations and condemnations attached to each type. This man appears to be condemned by his society for inhabiting his body. He either doesn’t have any family or friends, or he isn’t connected to them. Because he doesn’t have anyone to help him, he has been living this life, crawling toward a pool that he believes contains everything he needs, only to be pushed aside by those who are connected, those who have resources, those who have people who accept them. If he can reach it, he gains resources, not least of which is the ability to walk and gain better means of supporting himself. Without the use of his legs, he will continue to be pushed aside, with the use of his legs, he has a means to support and take care of himself. He has a better place in this world.
His world is much like our own. We think of some bodies as inherently better than others. We give them deference and honor. White able bodied cis men are given the most deference and honor. They have the “right” body, the archetypical body that all others are compared to. But is there a right body, or are there just more societally acceptable bodies? Does Jesus heal his legs to give him the right body, or does Jesus heal his legs to help him leave a place of torment and find new and better ways of interacting with the world? I believe this is the way that Jesus truly sets him free.
Jesus finds this man, in a sea of people trying to reach this pool, a large crowd that has the ability to constantly push this man back to his starting point, Jesus sees him. Jesus calls out to him. Jesus sets him free. His societal condemnation, his disconnectedness, his isolation was recognized, and Jesus brings him a new hope and a new sense of connection. Feelings of condemnation are turned into joy and suddenly there is someone who actually sees and cares about him. He has been given a new life.
Friends, every day our society puts people into situations similar to this man. Those who hit hard times, but have connections tend to do okay. Those without resources feel condemned to live lives of relative isolation and condemnation. A person moves to a city trying to build better life and instead finds themselves alone and homeless. Another finds that illness has stripped them of their connections as healthcare both depletes them of time and money. Someone comes out to their family and friends, only to find themselves losing them all.
And we are called to notice. We are called to care. But in doing so, we need to ask ourselves what our definition of wellness is. What does it mean to be made whole? What does resurrection look like in the face of crucifixion? These are the questions that keep me engaged with the Gospel. This is the challenge of the Christian life.
Within the challenge, we aren’t called to get it all right. I don’t know what wellness or wholeness looks like in every situation. I’m not always sure what resurrection means. But I know when I have felt resurrection power. I have felt resurrection power learning more about my beautifully diverse trans community, fighting alongside others for things that many take for granted, like being able to go to the bathroom when you need to, and being able to find a job. It’s in community gatherings and Facebook communities where people can ask questions and support each other throughout their journeys, coming together to help people pay for surgeries, answering questions about shots and pills, and it’s also in accepting that some people need gender affirming medical help and others don’t. We come together as community and we share with each other and we allow ourselves to grow, asking each other, “How can I help you feel well and whole? What does wellness look like for you?”
I find resurrection power in being able to help people grow into allies, supporting each other and learning from one another. One of my favorite people who is still learning how to be an ally is my friend Jerry. Jerry is a navy veteran, and went to get his Master of Theology degree after retirement. For the first two years of my Master’s program, Jerry was a consistent presence in my life. After hearing that I was transgender, he told me that he supported me and was always curious about how things were going in my life. I had come out as transgender my last semester of undergrad and went directly to seminary, so it was an interesting journey for all of us. He was curious about my experiences as I began taking testosterone after my first semester and he paid more attention to news about people in the Trans community. Our usual conversations went something like this: Jerry would come up to me while I was studying or after chapel and would say, “I have been thinking about you recently” and then ask a question that was either off the wall or slightly inappropriate. One time he very seriously told me about a story he had heard about a man who had become a woman in his 70’s. (His words, not mine), and asked, “Why would he do that? Couldn’t he just be him?” And I had to tell Jerry, “Maybe for the first time, she was just being herself.” And I thought of the torment, the anxiety, the fear, that comes with trying to live day after day, month after month, year after year, as someone you aren’t comfortable being. Of hearing the wrong pronouns, of dreaming of wearing certain clothing, but feeling too afraid. And this woman broke free from the fear and embraced herself after over 70 years. I can see Jesus walking up to her as she inched toward that pool of wholeness every day only to be pushed back by others or herself, and finally she hears the question, “Do you want to be made well?” And she is granted permission to be herself, to strip off the mask of manhood and embrace the person inside. She found herself transformed into her truest self.
Friends, Christ has the power to transform us all. We can all become whole people, living examples of resurrection power. Christ transformed my life by allowing me to come out as a transgender person, finding wholeness through this life changing journey. Christ transformed Jerry through his curiosity and willingness to learn about different ways of being human in this world. Christ transformed the man at the well’s life by allowing him to step away from his daily struggle, from the all-consuming journey toward a pool he could not get to, releasing him from his burden. How is Christ transforming you? What resurrection stories do you have to tell to the world? How is Christ using resurrection power through this community, bringing transformation to the world?
Let us pray: Christ, you have called us to not only be a community that follows you, but to be people who take your body into our body, to become wholly yours, people who are made well and transformed by your resurrection power. Lord, help us to see where resurrection needs to happen in our lives and in the world. Call us into the places of crucifixion. And give us your strength to step through those burdens and struggles, those fears and real persecutions that hold us back from wholeness into new life. Amen.